We’ll be working on a review for Russian Subway Dogs, so I got in touch with Miguel Sternberg to talk a bit about the game. Come check it out!
PS4Blog: Hi! Thank you for joining us at PS4Blog.net. Could you please help us get started by telling our readers a bit about yourself and your work?
Heya! I’m Miguel Sternberg, a game designer, pixel artist, and, more recently, a programmer. I run Spooky Squid Games out of Toronto, Canada. We’re probably best known for our platforming slash’em up, They Bleed Pixels. Russian Subway Dogs is our latest game, and I’ve been slowly porting it to various consoles, with the PS Vita being the first to release.
All our games are made with super small teams. In the case of Russian Subway Dogs, the core team was me, Alina Sechkin as co-pixel artist, and musician Peter Chapman, who created the fantastic soundtrack for the game.
PS4B: On that note, Russian Subway Dogs is now one of the last releases on Sony’s little portable console that could. How would you describe the game?
I usually describe it as something along the lines of a fast-paced systemic arcade game inspired by the real-life stray dogs of the Moscow metro. It was inspired by some articles I read back in 2012 about a small number of stray dogs in the Moscow metro who had learned to navigate the subway system. They’d commute from the suburbs where it was safe to sleep to the downtown, where it was easier to beg, steal and scrounge for food.
In the game, you play as a stray dog running along the subway platform as trains arrive, barking behind passengers to scare them into throwing their food. Your barks can also be used to juggle (highly explosive) vodka, which is your main way of interacting with the world. Where the depth comes in, and why I call it a systemic arcade game, is that the game has a lot of the kind of systemic simulation mechanics you get in immersive sims (or, more recently, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild).
For instance, any source of heat in the game will melt snow and ice, cook food, even roast other wildlife turning them into tasty snacks. The snow not only slows you down and stops poodles from jumping but can freeze fish, turning them into ice blocks you can scoot along the floor. Edible power-ups like hot sauce and coffee don’t just affect you but also work for any other animal that eats them. So you could find yourself facing a super-fast over-caffeinated poodle or a pigeon that poops fire, and because of the heat source rule, cooking any food it hits!
All these systems layer and combine with the combo and scoring system resulting in a lot of what’s called emergent gameplay, where a bunch of simple systems combine in complex ways to create fun and surprising interactions. It makes the game much deeper, and more repayable than single-screen arcade games tend to be, especially when it comes to the Endless Arcade mode!
PS4B: Russian Subway Dogs first had a Kickstarter campaign back in 2016 that, unfortunately, did not manage to reach its funding goal. The game was later announced as coming to PlayStation 4 and PS Vita back in 2017. It’s now… 2021. What were the hurdles and challenges you had to overcome during the last four years to finally get the game released on PlayStation Vita?
It’s actually been planned for much longer than that! The original prototype was made in 2012 in a two-day game jam using Game Maker. It was rough but had a good foundation to build on, so for years I poked at and improved it while we were working on other projects at Spooky Squid. Around 2014-2015 I tested that prototype on a PS Vita devkit and had the basic gameplay up and running in an evening! At the time, it was, of course, a much much simpler game. Based on that test, I started redoing all the art and physics to work well with the PlayStation Vita’s particular pixel resolution. 2016 was when we decided to make it our main project and launched the Kickstarter. Luckily while the Kickstarter, failed we did land a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, a provincial government org that helps fund games here. It didn’t cover everything, but it was enough – combined with other income – to keep going!
On the technical side from 2016, the first thing we needed to do was to complete the game. It was just the jam game with some improved art and a few new mechanics I’d added since the jam game release. Making it a full proper game involved rewriting the physics for 60 FPS, fine-tuning them to feel just right, lots of new and improved art, a whole zoo of unlockable guest characters, new commuters, and wildlife types. There was also an entire new Campaign Mode to create, with custom spawn patterns and unique challenges for each station. The jump from jam game to full game is a big one.
That takes us to 2018, when the game was released on PC. The next six months or so were bug fixes, bonus content, and localization to six additional languages. We take localization seriously, so this involved a lot of back and forth with the translators and even redrawing some keyword art for each language.
At this point, porting started in earnest! I had basic gameplay running on all three consoles while we were still working on the PC version, so I was pretty sure it’d be a quick job to port to PS4, PS Vita, and Xbox One. I was wildly optimistic. It turns out with modern engines, the gameplay part is easy – it’s getting all the technical requirements for each platform that takes time. The save system needed to be almost completely rewritten to be handled in a separate thread, then rewritten again when I found out that the Xbox can switch users without restarting the game. All sorts of failure states (stuff like controllers losing power or network disconnects) needed to be checked and handled differently for each platform.
The biggest time sink was actually the online Leaderboards for PS4 and Xbox One. PSN, Xbox Live, and Steam handle their leaderboards in very different ways, and Russian Subway Dogs does some complex stuff to calculate things like letter ranks. Easily half of my overall porting time has been Online Leaderboard related.
For the PS Vita, there was also optimization. Early on, we had no trouble hitting a consistent 60 FPS, but the final game has enough shaders, particles, and just plain stuff on screen that it needed a few weeks of optimizing to get it steady again. The last version of Game Maker Studio that can export to Vita is also no longer officially supported, which caused trouble when I discovered some important functions had been broken. I mostly worked around this, but one meant we couldn’t pass certification with the online leaderboards, so despite them being fully functional, I had to pull them out and create offline leaderboards for PS Vita a month or two before the deadline, but I was able to preserve the letter ranking system!
Russian Subway Dogs leaderboard ranks (A+, B, etc.) are based on where you compare to the rest of the player base. So, for example, to get an S+, you need to be in the top 5% of players. For Vita, I’ve used historical statistics from the PC version, so getting that S+ in Endless on PS Vita means you’re in the top 5% of PC players, or at least what they were around 2019 when I pulled the data.
So… it was a LOT! I skipped the entire part where They Bleed Pixels was ported to Nintendo Switch from start to finish while I waited for a support ticket about leaderboards to get solved (I won’t say which console that was for). I’m not sure if I’ll try to port to multiple systems all by myself in the future. It turns out it is incredibly time-consuming, and there’s a reason a lot of indies outsource it. I’m definitely never making a game with online leaderboards again!
PS4B: When can we expect to see Russian Subway Dogs on PlayStation 4? Is it going to be a separate release or a cross-buy game?
The plan is to get it out early 2022 sim-shipping with the Xbox One version. They’re close to being ready, but I need some time to recover from the 5-month marathon it took to hit the PS Vita deadline in time, and holidays are not a great time for indie game releases.
My hope is to make the PS4 version cross-buy. I’ve been told it’s doable but won’t know for sure till the PS4 version is submitted since things are clearly changing quickly at Sony. I’d really love to be able to reward the folks who’ve picked up the PS Vita release and supported us.
PS4B: And that’s all the time we have for today. Is there something else you’d like to add before we go?
If the game sounds like your jam, please pick it up! The team and I put a lot of hard work and care into it and hope you enjoy it. Also, please Tweet me screenshots of your endless scores.